If you haven’t heard of 18-year old Lachlan Johnson, you’re about to. The SLU freshman moved to St. Louis last fall with “created a toy now carried online and in retail stores across the country” and “sold a $100,000 business to the ABC reality show Shark Tank” on her resume. She’s now preparing to launch her second business. Did we say she’s 18?
Stories like Lachlan’s raise the real challenge facing St. Louis: how do we retain the talent we draw in? Once we attract rising entrepreneurs, what about St. Louis will keep them with us for the long haul?
First, an obvious element: low cost of living. “The array of opportunities and the low cost of living make it easy for people to take risks. And as a city, St. Louis is a great testbed for all kinds of new ideas and experimentation,” commented Tara Pham of Brain Drain, a local collective that shines frequent light on the great things happening in St. Louis City.
Transplants and young people also benefit from how easy it is to get involved in St. Louis. Something St. Louis has consistently done right, amidst its building ‘startup city’ cred, is encourage young professionals to become involved in the startup community. Programs such as Arch Grants, Capital Innovators and so many more are collecting budding entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, and then bridging them all together to form a stimulated network.
Of course, the excitement of national press, universities, and the downtown St. Louis resurgence helps interest build, too. As Arch Grants continues to gain footspeed and universities become more engaged in the startup community, positive press and local camaraderie follow suit. From Wash U sponsoring Techli’s Domain Tech Report to Career Development Centers placing students with jobs at St. Louis startups after graduation, a dogmatic shift in “why St. Louis?” is nearing revolutionary. Great schools are no longer the lone draw for young people considering a move to St. Louis. Not to mention increased preference for working, living and being downtown. “Downtown St. Louis is on fire! With so many incredible projects in the pipeline including the Stan Musial Veterans Bridge, Ball Park Village, and the new T-REX building, everyone wants to work downtown,” said Jeffry Harrison of Rovertown.
For Tim Hayden, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at SLU, the answer is simple: “Make it harder for the talent to leave.” Hayden leads a university initiative called Diamond in the Rough, a group for student entrepreneurs and arguably the most selective club on campus. The club helps its members establish a mini ecosystem through networking and mentorship. “It’s all centered around the question: ‘Can I establish roots in St. Louis?;” says Hayden. If a student gets an internship in St. Louis instead of their hometown, they’ll grow more invested. If we can also show them that St. Louis is progressive and fun, even better. The more ties to St. Louis, the better. Hayden even mentioned finding a spouse as an important factor, using Anheuser-Busch’s recruiting tactics as an example. “They recruited a bunch of soccer stars, essentially, to come to St. Louis. They put them in charge at AB, those men met wives who were from St. Louis- and now what do we have? A community that’s deeply rooted in St. Louis. Oh, and an extremely high quality youth soccer league.”
So, is it that simple? What if everyone doesn’t land the job-spouse-minivan package? “We want potential transplants and current residents to consider St. Louis a great place to live, work, and play. It’s important to remember that in this day and age, people move a lot, and like any major metropolis, St. Louis will gain immigrants and lose them constantly. The important thing is that when people come and go, they leave saying, ‘I loved living in St. Louis; it was a great city to me.’ Those people will be our best ambassadors,” added Tara Pham.